Skip Navigation

Is Your Kid a Threat? The Feds Want to Know.

FBI programs to counter violent extremism are intrusive, outdated and, as Orlando showed, likely to fail.

June 17, 2016

Crossposted on USA Today

If a child you care about is in K-12 schools in the United States, you need to start paying attention to government programs designed to “counter violent extremism.” Because counterterrorism officials are attempting to recruit your neighbors, community leaders and clergy, as well as teachers and counselors in your child’s school, to join secretive local committees that will evaluate whether your child needs to be reported to law enforcement as a potential terror threat.

Countering violent extremism (CVE) programs have been around for over a decade in Europe, and about half that long here in the United States. They have sparked intense controversy and divisiveness where they have been implemented. Part of the concern is that these programs are based on largely debunked theories of terrorist radicalization that claim the adoption of extremist ideologies is a first step in a progression toward violence.

In fact, research suggests the majority of people holding extreme views never commit violent acts, and many who engaged in terrorism did not previously demonstrate strong ideological attachments. As the tragic attack in Orlando underscores, even with all of the FBI’s investigative tools and intelligence capabilities, it cannot reliably predict who might be violent in the future, as much as we may wish otherwise.

But even while often admitting there are no reliable predictive indicators of extremist violence, CVE proponents argue there are identifiable “risk factors” of violent extremism, such as “social alienation” and “political grievances.” A Minneapolis CVE program administered by the U.S. Attorney identified “disaffected youth” as a “root cause” of violent extremism. Such vague labels could easily apply to any teenager, and particularly anyone who is unconventional, politically active or religiously devout.

The newest CVE program is the FBI’s plan to recruit people into Shared Responsibility Committees (SRC) across the country. The FBI unveiled the SRC program to a small group of community activists last year and last March launched a “limited pilot” in several unnamed cities, so it is not a classified program. But the FBI has not officially released public information about it. News reports citing unnamed officials indicate the agency is currently recruiting in New Jersey.

leaked draft of an FBI letter to prospective SRC members explains they are expected to evaluate FBI-referred individuals, then design and implement intervention programs that could include anything from mentoring support to behavioral therapy and mental health care. The document makes clear that SRCs are expected to share information with the FBI, but members must sign non-disclosure agreements prohibiting public discussion of SRC activities.

The letter also states that the FBI retains the authority to continue investigating individuals it referred to SRCs, and could subpoena SRC members for testimony or documents relating to the interventions they authorize. Such an arrangement would potentially infringe on student and health privacy laws, confidentiality requirements and professional ethics.

Other CVE efforts target schoolchildren directly. The FBI created a website called “Don’t Be a Puppet,” intended for use, The Washington Post reported, “by teachers and students to help the agency spot and prevent radicalization of youth.” Another leaked FBI document, “Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools,” claims that “youth aged 13 to 18 are actively engaged in extremist activities,” and recommends schools develop intervention programs to address violent extremism.

And the FBI is only one actor in the CVE field. Federal prosecutors in Minneapolis, Boston and Los Angeles initiated CVE pilot programs in 2014. The Minneapolis program describes two intervention efforts under development, one in the school systems. The Boston framework aims to enlist "schools, Department of Children and Families, crisis intervention staff, law enforcement, public health and others.” TheDepartment of Homeland Security is funding CVE efforts by private entities.

Separate CVE programs organized by local law enforcement are already operational in Dearborn, Mich., and Montgomery County, Md., Documents obtained by the Brennan Center indicate the Maryland program already referred 25 individuals for intervention, including at least one high school student school administrators feared was “radicalized.” Companies are also peddling anti-radicalization software to schools in the U.S. and United Kingdom to monitor students online.

We don’t have to imagine what harms will come once these programs are fully staffed because Britain is a few years ahead of us in mandating school reporting of suspicious children and families. An advocacy organization is collecting the horror stories of children and teachers being reported to police for expressing political opinions or simply drawing a cucumber. The youngest potential extremist reported was 3 years old.

We shouldn’t wait for such stories to emerge here at home before we challenge these secretive programs. While we all want safe schools and communities, secretive programs to identify dangerous speech will only chill debate and undermine trust between educators and students.